How will climate change affect marginalized communities?
As a striking dance performance work by the artist Arien Wilkerson reminds us, we already know the answer.
An artist-in-residence at SPACE in October, Wilkerson opens the original work Equators this weekend, a visual exploration of the effects of climate change seen through the lens of racist social and historical practices that have displaced communities of color, such as segregation, re-zoning, gentrification, and redlining. Performed in five waves over three days, the original multimedia piece is Wilkerson’s way of “targeting how climate structures influence expectations for quality of life, order, and territory.”
Despite, or perhaps because of this dead-serious framework, Equators is gorgeous to watch. (Wilkerson, along with artist-technician team and Jon-Paul LaRocco, shared a lo-fi rehearsal version of the piece for me last week.) Performed on a set outfit to SPACE’s dimensions with stacks of white and black industrial buckets, chains hanging from the ceiling, and startling effects that viscerally simulate the presence of cops, Equators is electrifying display of powerful historical concepts infused with the performer’s powerhouse energy and stripped of any didacticism.
Viewers can expect the piece to satisfy on a visual and entertainment-based level, as Equators sees Wilkerson performing numerous muscly characters, dance styles, erotic sensibilities, states of undress, and gender performances, set to a musical score containing tracks from Death Grips, ambient sound collage artist William Basinski, rapper Dean Blunt, the late cello-pop legend Arthur Russell, and breathy techno producer Huerco S.
But the work is equally rooted in intersectional politics and deep-dive journalism. Wilkerson explains that one of the piece’s primary sources was an Economic Policy Institute study called “The Making of Ferguson: Public Policy at the Root of Its Troubles” by the academic Richard Rothstein, which traces the police murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 from an individual act of racism to a long history of segregationist legislation.
“It was an expose about how his death was connected to zoning and segregational laws of Missouri,” Wilkerson says. “Because of segregation, redlining, and the ‘invention of the ghetto,’ it helped produce the characteristic of what police officers do and how they act when they’re in certain territories and around certain people.”
Wilkerson, a mid-twenties queer black artist and dancer from Hartford, Connecticut, has a history with Maine. Their parents split, Arien would come up to visit their father in Portland as a teenager during the summers. The idea for Equators originated during a visit to Maine a few years ago — specifically the resort town Old Orchard Beach.
“I was in Old Orchard Beach watching people build sand castles on the beach and I kept thinking about land and territory, how it’s been ingrained in us as humans to colonize things.”
Numerous contemporary studies show that communities of people of color face increased health risks due to pollution and natural disaster around the world. In parts of the U.S., as Wilkerson notes, they experience a lack of access to “salutogenic resources” like grocery stores, open spaces, clean water, hospitals, etc.
“Because poor people, specifically people of color, don’t live near these resources,” Wilkerson explains, “they’re the first people to die.”
Wilkerson expands the sociological concept of salutogenic resources to the possession of a vocabulary and understanding of the stakes of climate change itself, something they say wasn’t available growing up in the North End of Hartford.
“To me, as a black queer person, I was never talking about climate change, waste, recycling, composting. That’s the shit you don’t talk about when you’re in the hood.”
Opening less than a week after a deeply unsettling UN report citing predictions of a climate change-induced ecological disaster by 2040 (if no action is taken, and with the predictable absence of response from President Trump and his cabal of oil and energy industry tycoons, it’s likely there won’t be), it’s clear that people need to address the issue, and in a way that prioritizes those who’ll be most affected. As Wilkerson shows, that conversation is already happening.
Equators, by Arien Wilkerson/TNMOT AZTRO | Fri 7:30 pm; Sat-Sun 3 & 7:30 pm | SPACE, 538 Congress St, Portland | $10-15 | www.space538.org